Sunday, 29 July 2012

On Naming

Last night, at dinner, we talked about our children. One friend described how her toddler, currently in the question phase, incessantly asks, What’s that name? Any sound he hears, anything he sees, evokes the same question. She does her best to give him an answer: It’s a man down the road, doing Bob the Builder, mending his house. He’s language-gathering, discovering the world of concepts. Usually, he’s satisfied with her explanations. Sometimes, he persists: No, mummy – what’s that name? Occasionally, exhausted, she abandons her attempts to describe, and makes something up: That’s Steve.

Our ability to name things gives us a sense of control. Whether it’s external objects - birds, trees, planets, makes of car, other people - or internal objects like feelings, we feel a greater dominion over things that we are able to name. I’ve given it a name, so now I understand it. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, we believe that things are what we call them. What we don’t fully appreciate – until we really look – is that the activity of naming often keeps us one step removed, reinforcing our sense of separateness.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the emotional realm. It seems that talking about our feelings, however articulately, can be another way to resist actually feeling them. In fact, it is a way to solidify and even sanctify what we’re feeling. In our rush to name the feeling – fear, shame, love, guilt, happiness, sadness, anger – we objectify it, and then feel obliged to relate to it as if it’s somehow separate from us. As if it is ours to hold on to, get rid of, or deal with. Subject and object.

To fully immerse ourselves in the raw experience of emotion demands that we give up our conceptualising. All of it. Scott Kiloby’s Living Inquiries are an exceptionally effective way to deconstruct an emotion; by breaking it down into its constituent parts (words, images and sensations in the body), and looking closely at each part, we come to see that it’s not what we’ve assumed it to be. Over and over, we find that our assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny. It turns out that what we’ve believed to be guilt (for example) is a word, plus a couple of arising images, plus a sensation of contraction in the solar plexus. Without the word and the images, the sensation is just that...a physical sensation. It has no inherent meaning. It’s not saying anything. Allowed to just be, without explanation or interpretation or even description, it is fully felt, inevitably dissipating.

This activity of un-naming leaves us in the quiet spaciousness of not-knowing. When we are able to see words without the heavy weight of association, we lighten up. A few months ago, I looked for Fiona using the Unfindable Inquiry, with one of the other facilitators. I was astounded by the feelings of responsibility that came up; I’d believed that I had to make the Fiona project a success. When the things we’ve named prove to be unfindable, over and over again, we find ourselves in the stillness more often, it seems. Nothing to hold onto. No place to land.

A paradoxical delight then emerges. We see that things don’t exist outside of thought, image, sensation, and emotion, and yet we’re even more fully engaged with life. We enjoy talking, describing, and discussing, in the knowledge that our ideas and opinions are not us. We continue to entertain each other with our stories; it’s just that our plot twists and characters and narrative arcs are taken a bit less seriously. We continue to name things. Like the barking of dogs and the meowing of cats, it’s just what we do.  

What’s in a name?
That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.